In the classic, frequently referenced ‘bystander effect’ experiment of the 1960s, a subject was asked to fill out a form, but then smoke was pumped under the door.
The subject would invariably take time to report the smoke, because of an overriding concern about not standing out or causing a fuss.
Experimenters found that however long it took for the person to report the smoke, it took inordinately longer when two other people, conspiring with the experimenter, sat tight no matter how thick the smoke became.
The pressure to be socially compliant resulted in the subject filling out the form for so long that he/she needed to wave away the smoke to see the piece of paper and still didn’t raise alarm.
These two new novels prompt questions about how ordinary Germans acquiesced with the Nazi regime. Some readers will find it hard to take a German novel whose starting point is anything other than collective guilt for genocide.
Neither of these novels does anything like deny what happened in the war. What they do is particularise family stories and offer them as a counterpoint — a picture of ‘normal’ people surviving the war under great extremes of personal suffering.
We Germans, by Starritt, takes the form of a memoir: A German writes a letter to his grandson about his time as a soldier during the Second World War. He describes the vastness of the eastern front, where an isolated ragbag of German soldiers travelled across Poland and Ukraine to be outnumbered, outsmarted, and overwhelmed by Russia.
The novel describes the day-to-day trials, the barbaric encounters, starvation, and inhumanity, as the small, detached group of hungry German soldiers trudges along in despair, afraid of the enemy and of each other. But there is, if not an apologia, certainly a meditation and reflection on what it meant to be part of Hitler’s Nazis.
“Each of us thinks, ‘I didn’t set up the Nazi Party, I didn’t declare war on anyone, I didn’t deliver people to the camps’. But we did,” the narrator says.
With the passage of time, he says, it has become possible to dare to talk about German suffering and that people have become open to listening to Germans talking about their experiences.
He suggests there is more to be said than simply for the Germans to lock themselves in a prison of collective guilt.
Towards the end of We Germans, the narrator says that because of simple obedience, the Germans allowed themselves to be walked into the abyss.
He allows for what he refers to as some psychotic streak in the national psyche that enabled them to carry out their plans with calm methodology.
The narrator speaks of how hated the Germans were and that it would have been bad enough to be the hated conquerors, but worse to be the hated vanquished. As it became obvious to the German soldiers that they were looking at defeat, the incidence of suicide rose — someone would go for water, or some errand, and never return. And those who tried to run were executed as an example.
The old man writing the memoir — which is framed as a long letter to his grandson — does attempt to face the less noble feelings of some of those looking back at the war after many decades:
“But in all honesty, if you peel back the layers of acceptable opinion, it’s not so rare to feel an ugly nostalgia for the days when Germany was for the Germans. Certainly not so rare as our collective shame should make it.”
And his conclusion has a tough and unsentimental ambivalence: “… there is no right and wrong but what we decide to live by, and no ‘fair’ except what people effort fully construct. And, lastly, it’s all so fragile. Governments, banks, cities and houses, it’s all so much more fragile than you would believe, as easily blown away as dandelion seeds in the breeze.”
L Annette Binder’s book — which, of the two, has greater literary depth — ends with the bombing of a town by the Allies. This oddly comes as a kind of relief for the Germans. They have the grim comfort that the worst has already happened.
American soldiers arrive and one soldier gives the youngsters some sweets. Before releasing them to return to their homes, the Allies show them photographs of what are called the horror camps of Buchenwald and Belsen and tells the Germans to have a good look.
The Germans are convinced that the pictures of people “bony as crickets” are not real and that it couldn’t be true. The American soldier just says, “You’ll learn.”
Before that moment, The Vanishing Sky tells the awful story of a couple and their two young sons: Max, who returns home “war sick” and is taken, against the family’s wishes, to a psychiatric hospital; and Georg, who runs away from a German military school for young teenagers.
Their gruff and macho father, Josef, would have them bring honour to the family, bring honour to Germany, and to man-up for whatever is necessary for victory. But the two sons are sensitive souls who are crushed by the war.
One of the strongest stories running through Binder’s eloquent, and painfully human, novel is the mother’s search for Max in the hospital and her attempt to bring him home, and his strangely graceful convalescence, before he was taken away. At one stage, the hospital is all but deserted, because of bombing, but Etta, the mother, arrives to find Max still there, dazed and wondering where the sky has gone.
The centre of The Vanishing Sky is a deeply traditional home. The tragedy of the book is the way in which the warm hearth of the family is evoked, as a memory, war having unbalanced one boy’s mind and sent the other running in terror into the wilderness. The fragile beauty of home is besieged by the endless horrors of war. The evocative names of traditional German foods being cooked in the kitchen conjure a sacred space that you can almost smell.
But in the war, the ones gathering there are not the family, but the women who remain in the village.
One of the women cries out in desperation, “They’ve wrecked the world, these men, and still they’re not done. They’d take the sky if they could. They’d take the air we breathe, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”
The most forlorn and devastating moment comes when Max tells his mother about the constant sounds he is hearing at night in the hospital. And he asks her, “When will it stop?”